Ana Suda and Martha Hernandez were chatting in line at a convenience store in the small town of Havre, Montana, when the man behind them, border agent Paul A. O’Neal, demanded to know where they were born.
The friends, who had been speaking Spanish with one another, were taken aback. One of them began recording the encounter and asked the agent why he was requesting that they show him proof of citizenship. “Ma’am the reason I asked you for your ID is I came in here and I saw you guys are speaking Spanish, which is very unheard of up here.” He went on to explain that he wasn’t racially profiling them but that Hernandez’s accent and their choice of language was a red flag to him. “It’s the fact that it has to do with you guys speaking Spanish in the store in a state where it is predominantly English speaking, okay?”
As it turns out, both women were born on U.S. soil and are U.S. citizens who were simply exercising their right to speak a non-English language. They handed over their Montana driver’s licenses as proof. “I didn’t feel like I could say no since he was in uniform and armed,” explained Suda in a piece for the ACLU blog. The agent held their IDs and asked the women to come out to the parking lot, where he called for backup. It was only when another border agent identified the women as friends of his wife that they were released, nearly 40 minutes later.
Taking a Public Stand Against ICE
Following the encounter with ICE, Suda and Hernandez decided to wage a lawsuit against the border patrol with the help of the ACLU, which was filed this past Thursday. They are in the process of suing the border patrol agents involved, partly as compensation for how this has affected their personal lives and their families. “There have been issues at Ana and Mimi’s (Martha’s) place of employment,” said ACLU lawyer Alex Rate in an interview with Montana Public Radio. “So it’s just fair to say that folks know that this is out there, and they don’t like the fact that Ana and Mimi are standing up for their rights.”
Suda shared that both she and Hernandez have been receiving hate mail and have been heckled by some townspeople since speaking out about their run-in with the ICE agent. Her son’s high school teacher even requested that he bring his ID to class. In contrast to the tensions they have been experiencing with some of the Havre community, the surrounding indigenous communities have reached out to the women with messages of support.
The lawsuit also seeks to bar ICE agents from detaining a person based on their perceived race, accent, or language so that other U.S. residents will not have to fear whether their choice of language or accent will cost them their dignity or land them in a detention center. On a similar case, the courts have already ruled that border patrol agents cannot order a traffic stop simply because the driver or an occupant of a vehicle cannot speak English; the ruling pointed out that this in itself is not grounds for suspicion since many “individuals lawfully present in the country” cannot speak English. There are over 40 million native Spanish speakers in the U.S., a figure that has steadily grown over the past decade.